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Newton school board delays budget vote

Posted by Leslie Anderson  March 24, 2009 09:22 AM

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By Julia Rappaport, Globe Correspondent

The Newton schools are still without a budget for the coming fiscal year and it may be weeks before the School Committee votes to approve one. Proposed cuts to the high school wellness program drew the most debate at the board’s meeting Monday night.

The School Committee decided to delay a vote on the fiscal 2010 budget until as late as April 13, and canceled a meeting scheduled for Thursday. The delay was applauded by Mayor David Cohen, who attended the meeting along with state Representative Ruth Balser and a host of concerned students, parents, and community members.

‘‘With this budget, we want to make the best decisions we can based on the facts available to us at that time,’’ Cohen told the board.

In other school news, the board unanimously voted to appoint Paul Stein to deputy superintendent of schools. Stein, who has been assistant superintendent for human services since 2004, will take over for deputy superintendent Brenda Keegan when she retires this spring.

The board cited outstanding questions on healthcare costs and permissible ways to spend special education funds as reasons for delaying a vote on next year's budget. Superintendent Jeff Young first proposed his $164 million budget to the board in a public meeting on March 5.

Just because the board took no vote last night did not mean the nearly three-hour meeting was without discussion on the budget. Controversial cuts to the wellness program at Newton North and South high schools drew the most debate, with individuals traveling from as far as Gloucester to speak against a proposal to reduce the high school wellness requirement from seven semesters to five and cut staff. Young says the proposal would save $156,600.

‘‘I ask that you spread out cuts instead of just targeting the wellness courses at North and South,’’ said Jeffrey Alkins of Dorchester.

Alkins, who is enrolled in Newton through the Metco program, is a sophomore at South and a three-season athlete. He also swims competitively on an intramural team and dances after school. He told the board the wellness program, which offers classes from meditation to alcohol awareness, should not be confused with gym period or after-school athletics.

‘‘It is a safe learning environment,’’ Alkins said. ‘‘Because of the wellness classes I have started eating better. I recently stopped drinking soda. I have never felt better in my life.’’

Jane Panicucci of Gloucester is vice president of the Beverly-based Project Adventure, a nonprofit dedicated to education through adventure-based programming. She also made the trip to Newton last night to ask the board to hold off on cuts to the wellness program. ‘‘There is a researched, strong connection between activity and the brain and activity and academic improvement,’’ she said.

The entire budget, including the proposed cuts to the wellness program, will be on the agenda when the school board next meets at a time still to be determined.

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